It's really hard to find a tunnel underground.
Despite the advance of many military technologies in recent years, there's still no good solution to "detection of underground voids (tactical tunnels)," as the Pentagon calls it.
That's why a tunnel-detection device is among the first problems targeted by the Defense Department's new "crowdsourcing" initiative, a technology development program that aims to draw on the knowledge and skills of current troops and government employees.
Launched in early October, "Laboratory Innovation Crowdsourcing," or LINC, is posting "challenges" and opening the door for anyone with a military or government email address to propose solutions.
It's a unique way to circumvent the Pentagon's traditional bureaucracy that develops technology and acquires new systems. Run by the little-known Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, LINC is modeled on a similar program used successfully by the intelligence community for several years.
"We're looking for out-of-the-box thinking," said Adam Tarsi, CTTSO chief of staff. "The whole purpose of LINC is to try to develop or identify non-obvious relationships and solutions that we might not have thought of using the traditional methods."
There's no monetary reward, but troops and employees who contribute to successful developments will be recognized across the military community. For the Pentagon, the program potentially offers big cost savings, since work provided by government workers is "government intellectual property," and their ideas would not come with the costs normally associated with patented or copyright material drawn from the private sector.
In total, about four million people are eligible to access the LINC challenges, including service members, civilians from all government agencies and a select set of contractors.
Among the other initial "challenges" posted by LINC is a software-driven product that would help troops identify unknown materials in the field. For example, service members might come across a laboratory, but it might be unclear whether it's a bomb-making facility or a methamphetamine lab or have some other unfamiliar purpose.
The LINC challenge is looking for a highly sophisticated algorithm that can help identify material compounds and let operators know what they are looking at, Tarsi said.
Ideas and proposals will be reviewed by the CTTSO staff and, if viable, may be handed off to one of the office's program managers for more formal development, Tarsi said.
The complex nature of the challenges posted to LINC will make the pool of respondents potentially very small.
"It's a very specific, highly scientific, technological problem set," he said.
"Our quest is to find people working in this space that we don't know. We know the usual suspects, but is there somebody else who has an expertise on this? It's not going to be a secretary or logistician or a gate guards that are going to propose that. They are going to have some engineering expertise."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.